Payback is a star vehicle that our star never quite figures out how to drive. He's playing a thief named Porter who gets double-crossed by both his partner (Gregg Henry) and his wife (Deborah Kara Unger), and the movie's one long act of revenge. Because his partner used $70,000 of Porter's money to pay off a criminal syndicate called the Outfit, and because Porter's one of those guys who believe in honor among thieves, he starts pulling the Outfit apart, one thread at a time. This brings him into contact with everybody from his wife's heroin supplier to Kris Kristofferson's Mafia kingpin. None of them can believe that Porter's willing to throw his life away for a measly $70,000; of course, when all is said and done, it's not his life that gets thrown away. Payback is based on the same novel (Richard Stark's The Hunter) that John Boorman's 1967 film Point Blank was based on, but the approaches are as different as night and day. Boorman set his version under a bright California sun; and Lee Marvin, in the Porter role, gave a performance so emptied of emotion that it was hard to tell whether he was dead or alive. Brian Helgeland, who directed Payback, has set his version in one of those nameless noir cities draped in shadows and smoke. (The movie's all blacks and blues, like a bruise.) And he's upped the violence quotient, literally and figuratively wielding a sledgehammer. Less indebted to pulp fiction than to Pulp Fiction, Payback gets sadistic pleasure out of inflicting pain.
The movie's enjoyable when Porter's outfoxing his opponents, but it has trouble mixing and matching tones when Porter turns into a softy--scenes that were added without Helgeland's participation or approval. "One always has in mind an image that one wants to project, particularly in this business," Gibson recently told Premiere. But it's not clear Gibson can play the dark side of his image anymore. There's not a lot of mystery in the man, and Porter should be a Man of Mystery. Especially in the narration, Gibson adopts a nicotine-stained voice that's so raspy it sounds like he's gargling. Porter might have been like Mad Max--a vengeful loner who'd just as soon kill you as look at you. Instead, he's Lethal Weapon's Martin Riggs on a really, really bad day.